Having witnessed first-hand, as a grantee, the transformative impact of the ERC on European science, Professor Nektarios Tavernarakis, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH), Professor of Molecular Systems Biology, Medical School, University of Crete and Corresponding Member, Academy of Athens, is wholeheartedly committed towards contributing to its mission, in his capacity as a member of the ERC Scientific Council, and now as the only Greek to have been elected as Vice-President of ERC. “I am looking forward to working closely with my colleagues in all three domains, the Life Sciences, the Physical Sciences and Engineering and the Social Sciences and Humanities domains, and build on the legacy that distinguishes the ERC, towards encouraging high quality research on the basis of scientific excellence”, he says, sharing his vision for his new role with EuroScientist, in his first official interview for foreign media after being nominated.
Who is the new ERC Vice President?
I recall vividly my childhood attempts to build a Tesla coil and the painful experience of coming in contact with lethal high voltages. I also remember the joy I felt, when it finally worked and generated spectacular arcs! To a great extent, I owe what I have accomplished so far to the brilliant teachers and mentors, I was very fortunate to have throughout my career, as well as, to my parents who, appreciating the value of education and knowledge, encouraged me to pursue this path. Incidentally, one of my early mentors was Fotis Kafatos, an ERC pioneer and the first President of the ERC Scientific Council. I consider proper mentoring as the most important factor for a successful career in academia and research. Also, of particular importance have been the opportunities I was offered to pursue my interests and to realize my research goals. After completing my graduate studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where I had the good fortune to be taught by highly motivated professors, I pursued my doctoral studies at the University of Crete. I was again fortunate to perform my PhD research at the neighbouring Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IMBB), of the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH), where Fotis Kafatos was Director, at the time. I was extremely lucky to work with scientists of such caliber, and become embedded in a vibrant research ecosystem, located in my home city, Heraklion, in Crete, Greece. After a few years of postdoctoral research in the United States, I came back as an independent researcher at IMBB and a professor at the Medical School of the University of Crete. Starting my independent career in Greece’s premier research institution that offers a multidisciplinary research environment has been a milestone that afforded me the opportunity to pursue my ideas and build a productive research group.
You have been elected as a member of ERC Scientific Council since 2016, what is different now?
My new responsibilities as ERC Vice President in the domain of Life Sciences will include the coordination of a number of actions, such as developing the overall ERC strategy, together with the other members of the Scientific Council, as well as, the identification of panellists for the evaluation of submitted proposals. As part of my Vice President duties, I will also be coordinating the ERC Standing Committee for Programme Impact Monitoring and Evaluation. This committee is tasked with implementing the monitoring and evaluation strategy of the ERC, in addition to reviewing the outcome of ERC activities.
What’s your biggest ambition in your new role?
First and foremost, I hope to build on what has already been achieved, and contribute further to the ERC’s raison d’être, which is the support of frontier research. As a member of the scientific community, I strongly believe that we need “more ERC” in Europe. Every year, the ERC evaluates many more excellent proposals, deserving support (about 30% more), than it can eventually fund. This is quite disheartening to European scientists, and to those from all over the world, who want to come and do research in Europe. For this reason, the ERC budget should be substantially increased, to allow support of all worthy projects. Together with my Colleagues at the Scientific Council, I want to work methodically towards achieving this important objective. This effort is particularly timely, now that we are transitioning to the new Horizon Europe framework programme. If anything, the current COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that supporting frontier research is truly an investment to our collective future and should be prioritized. Strengthening the role of the ERC, as an instrument that supports research excellence across Europe is a prudent strategy towards reaping tangible societal benefits, and fortifying against unpredictable threats.
What are the challenges ahead for the ERC? What would you like to change during your term? What’s your vision for research?
The ERC is already universally considered to be a major European success story. It stands as a radiant paradigm of how prudent investment in frontier research can reap enormous benefits for society and the scientific community. For this reason, the ERC needs to be strengthened, and become capable of supporting all excellent research proposals that are submitted every year but cannot be funded, due to budgetary limitations. This is a key challenge that needs to be addressed in the short term. It is, therefore, imperative that the ERC’s budget is sizeably augmented in the framework of the next Horizon Europe programme. It is not enough to acknowledge how wonderful the ERC is for European science, or to simply praise its tangible achievements and societal impact. Europe’s policy makers need to take concrete steps towards enabling the ERC to fulfil its mission of providing support to all excellent research in Europe. An additional challenge pertains to widening the participation to the ERC funding schemes of scientists from countries that are currently hosting relatively fewer ERC grantees. I’d love to see more applications coming in from such countries, which includes my own country, Greece. Understandably, to a large extent, this goal is contingent to also developing corresponding research support policies locally, at the national level, in these countries. The ERC is already contributing in this direction, as a point of reference for how to evaluate and fund frontier research.
ERC as a model of how to effectively support scientific research
Professor Tavernarakis adds that since its inception the ERC has been supporting frontier research, with excellence as the sole criterion for funding. A balanced investment in both fundamental and applied research is a reliable strategy towards generating impactful outcomes for society. Frontier research is the bedrock of innovative and transformative technological progress.
Don’t you think that it’s time for ERC to pave the way for more investments in fundamental research since we have put more emphasis and money on technological advancement, at a dizzying pace?
The ERC’s mission is to strengthen this research base and at the same time to also foster innovation. In fact, one of the funding schemes the ERC has implemented is the “Proof-of-Concept” grants, designed to support ERC grantees, with a lump sum of 150K euro, in their efforts to develop innovative products and services, to meet important societal challenges. Moreover, substantial and long-term investment in frontier research is a prerequisite for achieving sustainable development goals. The ERC is already contributing critically here. Overall, it is now evident that the ERC has become a world-class funding organization, and a model of how to effectively support scientific research. It has already transformed the European research landscape by attracting and/or retaining talented scientists, and increasing Europe’s competitiveness.
Would your perspective as a molecular biologist affect the way you will steer the ERC as Vice President in the next years?
My aim is to contribute to the ERC’s mission by working closely with all my Colleagues, in the three domains at the ERC Scientific Council. Coming from the Life Sciences, I have a strong appreciation of the interdisciplinary nature of modern research. The explosive progress in the life sciences that we are witnessing in recent years is fuelled by technological and engineering advances, in diverse fields of study. For example, nowadays biomedical research extensively benefits from developments in physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science and informatics, as well as, social sciences. In some cases, boundaries between domains and fields are fading, and we see that a large number of proposals involve elements spanning diverse research areas. The ERC welcomes and embraces such synergies. Indeed, the ERC Synergy funding scheme is purposefully designed to support synergistic efforts by groups of scientists, with complementary expertise, that come together to take on important scientific questions and challenges.
Steps towards engaging the public
Professor Tavernarakis believes that research institutions, universities and individual researchers need to take actual steps towards engaging the public and stimulating the interest of society in science. In addition to the traditional media outlets, such as newspapers, radio and television, a plethora of online venues, including the social media, podcasts and blogs, can be exploited to reach a wide audience.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that European researchers and scientific societies will face in the next decade and how should they start working now to overcome it?
Approaching sustainable development goals and battling unpredictable existential threats, akin to the current pandemic are, in my view, among the major global and European challenges, for the future. Rising up to these challenges will require the concerted efforts of scientific communities across the globe. We are already witnessing such spontaneous, bottom up global coordination of research activities, in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In a very short period of time, the virus and its modus operandi have been characterized in great detail, and we even now have highly efficient vaccines and therapeutics. This is a truly amazing feat and speaks volumes about the power and value of scientific research. Moreover, the technological advancements that are ushering in the new era of the 4th Industrial Revolution are the product of frontier research conducted decades ago. I believe it is critical to intensify investment on science education, in addition to supporting bottom up, basic and applied research. It is also important to consider thoroughly and wisely the ethical implications of innovative, cutting-edge technologies that are becoming available, at a pace that is difficult to assimilate. Europe needs to remain a major player and, surely, reinforce its position in the global arena. The ERC has already contributed significantly in this direction.
What can scientists do to promote public interest in research?
Providing inspiration to the young generation is essential for preparing future scientists. Furthermore, hosting and participating to public happenings, dedicated to science and fun learning, such as, the pan-European Researcher’s Night event, or public lectures on topical matters of general interest, should be actively pursued. Effective and dependable science communication is an endeavour of paramount importance, not only for disseminating research achievements, but also for amassing much needed political support for defending long-term investment in frontier, blue skies research. This is becoming ever more important, with the rise of a myopic, populist culture, demanding on-order innovation and instant gratification. Proper science communication is vital for restoring appreciation for fundamental research, among the general public and politicians that are shifting dangerously towards favouring utilitarian approaches to both science and higher education. The chatter about the so-called “entrepreneurial universities”, at the higher echelons of the European Commission is just an indication to this effect.
What can scientists do to fight fake news and populism?
We are, indeed, witnessing an explosive increase in the spread of fake news, including about science matters, in recent years. This is, of course, fuelled by the ease of communication that modern technology has afforded us. Ultra-wide band internet channels, including the social media, now allow anyone to become a broadcaster of anything. This, coupled with the innate power of sensationalism on the human psyche, creates a highly precarious condition that is bound to amplify the spread of misinformation and outrageous claims, both about the benefits and the perils of scientific achievements. So many times, we’ve read, even in respectable media outlets, that the cure for cancer is here or that the elixir of youth has been found. Such grossly exaggerated statements harm science and undermine people’s trust in the scientific method. At the same time, suspicion and conspiracy theories are rampant in the blogosphere and the social media. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked heated debates and vulgar confrontations about almost all aspects of the relevant epidemiological, clinical and biomedical research efforts. While, I do believe that we will be able to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming months, I am not optimistic about easily containing the fake news pandemic. This will require the concerted efforts of many actors in the propagation chain, including scientists. In my view, the safest strategy is to communicate scientific progress faithfully and in clear terms, without succumbing to the temptation of oversimplification or exaggeration, in an effort to capture the attention of the public. The objective should not be to quench the appetite of the audience for breakthroughs, or good news of deliverance from torment, but to accurately convey what has been achieved.
Could you describe the situation with regard to research in Greece?
The ERC has transformed the European research landscape and has become the golden standard of how to effectively support investigator-driven, frontier research, across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence, via competitive funding. In addition, the ERC has influenced the national research policies of many countries in Europe and across the world, serving as a model of how to set up research funding agencies. This has been the case for my own country, Greece, as well. The Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI/ELIDEK) has been modelled after the ERC and commenced its operation in 2016. Already, it has had measurable impact on Greece’s research community, with funding schemes supporting young scientists and junior faculty, PhD students, and research infrastructures. In doing so, the HFRI has contributed significantly towards curtailing brain drain and brain waste, which is a thorny issue for Greek science. I should add that, while the creation of the HFRI has been a big step in the right direction, we still need considerable more support for fundamental research in Greece. The Greek scientific community has already demonstrated excellence, in multiple instances. Just as a pointer to this effect, I would like to note that, up to now, 72 proposals from Greece have been selected for funding by the ERC, securing more than 96 million € for the country. Nevertheless, I do believe that we can do much better. By prioritizing and supporting frontier research and science, at the national level, Greece can increase its international competitiveness substantially.